Mississippi State isn’t an underdog anymore.
Vic Schaefer wanted to be here, worked hard to get here, but now that he actually is here, he has to figure out what to do here. His first three years as the head coach at MSU were marked by obvious improvement and development. By the end of year three, his Bulldogs were in the NCAA Tournament, the Top 15 and far past the point of being overlooked.
They used to be the dogs at the back of the pack, nipping at the heels of those in front of them as they worked their way forward. It happened faster than maybe some expected, but already, Schaefer’s women have overtaken their quarry and become the lead dogs themselves. Now that they got there, they have to keep their spot.
Luckily, Schaefer has a plan. It’s the same one he had the day he started at MSU.
“We still have to embrace that ‘hunter’ mentality,” he said. “We have to remain aggressive.”
Schaefer was at the ESPN studios in Charlotte, North Carolina for women’s basketball media day in the SEC this week. The first time he attended such an event, he was a new coach in a conference of legends, a first-year head coach trying to find where he and his team fit into the best conference in the country, the next step below the WNBA. Neither he nor his program is the big-eyed puppy anymore.
Throughout the day in Charlotte, that was made perfectly clear. When discussing the upper echelon of the league, MSU was in the conversation. Tennessee, South Carolina, and … Mississippi State. The first two are among the best programs in basketball, considered title contenders on a yearly basis almost regardless of the roster. In a few short years, Schaefer’s Bulldogs have entrenched themselves in that elite group.
“People across the country have respect for Mississippi State basketball,” Schaefer told ESPN host Maria Taylor.
It’s true. He said those words during his time on a panel of SEC coaches discussing the state of the conference and the state of college basketball. As he talked, and as he always does, Schaefer wore a big, shiny ring on one finger – a National Championship ring he won at Texas A&M. He was an assistant then and the head coach he won it with sat at the end of the line of coaches in the studio.
Gary Blair is the elder statesman of the SEC, one of the most accomplished, experienced and respected coaches in the conference. He didn’t teach Schaefer everything he knows, but Blair imparted at least a good chunk of it. Blair has happily watched from College Station as his former assistant has built a contender in Starkville.
“You used to go to Mississippi State and hear crickets,” Blair said when asked about the toughest road games in the SEC. “Now, that place is packed and loud.”
Again, a true statement from the coach. A solid half dozen of the best crowds in MSU history have been under Schaefer’s watch the last couple years. MSU surpassed its record in season ticket sales over two months before the 2015-16 season began. There are three weeks to go until the season-opener and tickets are still flying out the door.
“They’ve really won the hearts of our fans and our community,” Schaefer said of his team. “Coming to watch women’s basketball has become the thing to do in Starkville.”
MSU hosts both South Carolina and Tennessee in Starkville this season, and Schaefer said his goal is to get 10,000 people in Humphrey Coliseum for each game. It might just happen, too.
He’s earned the support as recognition for the job he’s done. MSU’s preseason Top-10 ranking reflects that, as well. The key, now that they’re there, is to stay there. Oddly enough, for a team picked third in the SEC, with All-SEC players and Parade All-Americans on the roster, MSU still has a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Going into the year, State’s last game is, naturally, the freshest on their mind – a loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Duke, a game they feel they should have won.
“We’re good enough,” Schaefer replied when asked what he learned from the loss. “It left a bad taste in our mouth and creates a hunger and a desire to get back there.”
The attention and accolades are nice, he says. Humbling, for sure, and something he appreciates. But the emotions from the court, not the papers, are the ones driving his team.
MSU will have the proverbial target on its back this year and likely for years to come, but Schaefer’s plan is to turn the attention right back on those giving it to him. Underdog or favorite, Mississippi State remains The Hunter.
“It’s really been fun building what we’ve built to this point,” Schaefer said, “and we’ve still got a long way to go.”